A photo – that’s what made me want to hike to Mirror and Crater Lakes in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The photo showed Lone Eagle Peak reflecting in Mirror Lake. After seeing that photo, I wanted to hike to that place. Then I saw the distance – 15 miles roundtrip! For me, that meant backpacking. After inviting some friends and getting a permit, it was time to make the trek.
The hike starts at Monarch Lake between Granby and Grand Lake, a drive of about 2 and a half hours from Denver (directions below). Find a parking space, hike past the closed gate, down a road to a small cabin on the lake. The cabin has a sign in sheet and sometimes, a volunteer to answer questions. There’s also a bathroom.
While you may be anxious to go, take the time to walk a few steps over to Monarch Lake for a photo. The lake, with the peaks to the east, is very scenic. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a moose. Then it’s time to hit the trail.
The Cascade Creek Trail starts on the north side of the lake and follows the shoreline for about 0.8 miles. The lake is large, calm and serene. As you walk, look for people and waterfowl trying to catch fish.
As the lake ends, the trail continues along a stream. Here hikers will pass through a couple boulder fields. No worries, the trail goes through the boulders, not over them, so the footing is fine.
At 1.25 miles, you may see a sign in the trees that says you're are entering the Indian Peaks Wilderness. This area was protected as wilderness in 1978. It's 76,586 acres on the south side of Rocky Mountain National Park. It got its name because many of the peaks in the area are named after American Indian tribes of the west.
At 1.6 miles, you'll pass the trail split for the Monarch Lake loop. Now the trail begins to climb slightly. You may notice a lot of dead trees and fallen trees. This area has been hit hard by the bark beetle infestation. One warning, if it's windy, don't hike here, this trail can be dangerous.
If you hike this path in late spring/early summer, your ears will often be filled with the sounds of crashing water before you see the next stream. Let those sounds take over your senses as you climb the switchbacks.
At about 2.3 miles, the trail suddenly comes to a small canyon carved by a creek. Here two creeks merge putting on a quite a show. Turn left and follow the trail to find the bridge over the creek.
As you hike along, there are more switchbacks, small cascades and meadows. You'll pass the Buchanan Pass Trail, then come to a second bridge at 3.3 miles. There's a treat coming. Cross the bridge and start up the switchbacks. But at the first turn, go off trail a few feet and look into the nearby canyon. In the spring, the water creates a wonderful unnamed waterfall here. But anytime of year, it's worth seeing this drop. You may spy more cascade above this, go back to the trail, continue up the switchbacks until you see a social trail back over to the falls. Do a little exploring, take pictures and then return to the main trail.
After you cross a third bridge, Cascade Falls is a short distance away. It features two major drops. A somewhat narrow drop at the top and a fan drop at the bottom. You can sit just off trail and enjoy this show. Many people turn around here, but you’ll be glad you’re continuing on. Just a short distance up the trail, you’ll get a closer look at one of the drops for the first Cascade Falls. Just behind the trees, water pours over a cliff and creates a gushing waterfall in a small alcove of sorts. This is another great spot for photographs.
Then it’s back to the trail for two more cascades! Each one about 0.2-0.35 miles away. After the last waterfall – number 5 by my count – it’s back into the forest for the last 2.6 miles. Here the trail gets a bit skinnier as it climbs up a valley. Listen as you hike, you may hear Cascade Creek below you.
About 6.9 miles from the trailhead, you’ll come to a split. While the sign simply tells hikers going to Crater Lake to turn right, it said much more to me. I knew at this point I only had about a mile to go. However, some of us found the Crater Lake Trail to be a bit tough. In the next mile you’ll gain about 400 feet of elevation gain. It’s not much, but with a full pack, after 7 miles, we were tired. The trail continues in the forest with some sections where you’ll need to watch your feet. There’s a rocky, creek bed. There’s a rock you cross with no trail, just some cairns. And just before you get to the lake, there’s a series of steep switchbacks.
During the hike, you may catch glimpses on Lone Eagle Peak to the south. Arriving at Mirror Lake is incredible. Find the right spot on the shoreline, in between the trees, and you’ll see it immediately – Lone Eagle Peak reflecting in the water. To see reflections in the water, you often have to arrive early in the morning. Not at Mirror Lake. We saw the peak reflecting in the water in the morning, afternoon and evening. It’s beautiful. From here, it’s another tenth of a mile or so to the shore of Crater Lake. Walk around the shore line a short distance and you can get another great shot of Lone Eagle Peak, but you may or may not get the same cool reflection shot.
At Crater Lake, while you may be concentrating on the Lone Eagle Peak, don’t forget to scan the entire basin. I loved how many more waterfalls and cascades we spotted hugging the scenic cirque. Take a break and enjoy your visit to Crater Lake and this amazing place.
Find more hikes in the Indian Peaks Wilderness and other places in this list of 200+ great hikes in Colorado.
Details: The hike to Crater Lake is 7.8-8 miles one way depending on how much exploring you do. Expect about 2,000 feet of elevation gain.
Directions: From Interstate 70 in Denver, go west to the Winter Park/Highway 40 turnoff. Take Highway 40 through Winter Park and Fraser to Granby. In Granby, turn right on Highway 34 toward Grand Lake. Drive about 5.4 miles and turn right at the entrance to the Arapaho National Recreation Area. Travel east on Forest Road 125 for about 10 miles to the Monarch Lake Trailhead.